Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a $33.7 billion state budget Saturday that blocks the spending of millions of dollars the Legislature had allocated for prisons and mental health facilities that he is intent on shutting down to reduce costs.
The action sets the stage for another fight between the governor and lawmakers later this fall on how to spend the $57 million Quinn blocked. The governor made it clear he would like to redirect at least some of that money to the state agency in charge of caring for neglected and abused children.
The budget adopted by the General Assembly in May cut funds for the Department of Children and Family Services by $50 million, Quinn said. But to restore some of that by redirecting the prison funds, the governor will have to get lawmakers to go along.
"I think the cuts that I've made ... should be considered for reallocation when the General Assembly comes back in the late part of November and into December," Quinn told reporters in Chicago after signing the budget. "I think it's important that we put a priority on children, especially abused and neglected children in Illinois."
The governor's plan to close prisons has generated opposition from unions representing prison staff and from Republican and Democratic lawmakers representing those areas. Quinn argues facilities like the "supermax" Tamms prison -- which is half-empty and where the cost of housing inmates in isolation is three times higher than at other prisons -- are too expensive to keep open when the budget is strained.
Opponents are worried about the jobs that will be lost and about the impact of moving prisoners to other facilities in Illinois' already badly overcrowded prison network.
"It's wrong to whipsaw taxpayers between safe prisons and safe kids. That's a false choice," said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the largest union of state workers in Illinois, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31.
"Rather than threatening irresponsible cuts to the state's overcrowded and understaffed correctional system as the price of preventing disastrous reductions to child welfare, the governor should make clear to the General Assembly that its ... cut to DCFS staff is unworkable and must be restored," Lindall said.
Quinn's plan also would close a prison in Dwight as well as halfway houses and two juvenile detention centers in Joliet and Murphysboro. In total, 57 state facilities would be closed or consolidated, including mental health and developmental disability centers.
That would save $82 million in the 2013 fiscal year, the governor's office said.
In the case of Tamms, in southern Illinois, the governor offered Friday to sell the 14-year-old facility to the federal government, holding out the prospect that it could stay in operation. Its closure would mean about 300 layoffs in a part of the state hit hard by economic turmoil. Quinn's administration maintains that with Department of Corrections attrition, jobs at other facilities should be available to everyone if they're willing to relocate.
More than 1,000 correctional workers could get pink slips with the additional shutdowns.
In his remarks Saturday, Quinn acknowledged the cost in terms of jobs, but said, "We cannot just see state government putting facilities in places as an employment program."
At his news conference, the governor did not highlight any other changes from the budget blueprint approved by the General Assembly.
It cuts education funding by $200 million and child welfare spending by $85 million. Overall, the budget reduces discretionary spending by $1.4 billion from the previous fiscal year. Republicans had sought even deeper reductions.
The budget also allocates $1.3 billion to pay down the state's huge backlog in overdue bills.
Quinn has already signed legislation that saves more than $2 billion in Medicaid health care spending for the poor with $1.6 billion in cuts and millions more from a cigarette tax increase.
In one major setback for the governor, the General Assembly failed to adopt a plan during the spring legislative session to address the growing $83 billion in unfunded liability for the pensions of public sector employees -- the state's most pressing financial issue.
Since then, top Illinois lawmakers have failed to make any visible headway in negotiations on pension reform, and both parties have accused the other of seeking to stall the issue until after the November elections.
Quinn said Saturday that both sides must quickly press ahead on the issue. Otherwise, he said, core services such as education and public safety will suffer, as more money goes toward pensions. He noted that $5.3 billion of the new budget alone is going to the cost of public pensions.
"The crying need to have pension reform is now," he said. "We just simply cannot afford this. The squeeze is on."